The Myth of Inbox-Zero

Following buzzwords doesn’t make you more productive

In this day and age, it’s fair to say that anyone who is moderately active online (news, social networks, blogs, e-com sites) is faced with an email overload challenge. We all receive far too many emails in any single day than we can realistically handle, and certainly far too many emails than we should. We don’t live to read emails; I don’t, and you shouldn’t!

With personal emails, some people have the luxury (and bravery) to declare email bankruptcy, completely empty their inboxes and start afresh. While this is clearly not a sustainable solution, most people, me included, can’t afford to do that for obvious reasons…

Now turn to your work inbox and all of sudden the email overload problem becomes a different beast altogether! Can you afford to declare email bankruptcy on your work inbox? I’d confidently say that no one can but a select few who are important enough to ignore others with no dire consequences. Maybe if you stormed out of your boss’s office after a heated argument and in your brief moment of temporary insanity you decide to delete your inbox — or maybe even then you can’t get yourself to do it…

I live a similar frustration day in day out having to deal with a work inbox that’s constantly bursting through the seams. A frustration that speaks volumes of the now new-normal work life that most of us lead in a digital age characterised by chronic information-overload and you-are-not-allowed-to-switch-off culture. To put things in perspective, if I (hypothetically) chose not to check and proactively manage my inbox, an average afternoon is bound to set me back in the range of 100-200 new email messages! Of course not all of that volume of messages is human-generated, but many notifications from the various systems and services we nowadays depend on at work need to be monitored (at least in passing) and in my case a lot of such messages need to be read in some detail because they simply act as my team’s activity stream. But that’s not all of course, I have to sift through the volume and noise to see if there are really important messages that need my prompt attention.

In a frantic search of that magical mystical peaceful state of “inbox-zero”, I made myself a promise. I promised myself to keep on top of my work inbox no matter how and no matter at what cost. Work hard, work smart, you name it! I needed to summon the courage and get knee-deep to try and tame that wild inbox.

I had a plan (or so I thought). I started by devising an elaborate set of folders inside my inbox to use as my “clever” and “effective” classification scheme. Then I forced myself into the habit of regularly scanning my inbox for new messages, and then quickly triage those messages into “do-now” and “do-later” lots whereby my inbox’s main folder acts as my work queue. I then work my way through the “do-now” items making sure, once done, each message is moved to its precise folder for archival. The “do-later” lot is the bottom-of-the-pile low priority items which tend to rot in my inbox as they constantly get pushed down the queue by the more important ones that never fail to arrive (seemingly out of nowhere).

Putting my ingenious plan to work, one day, the unthinkable happened. I reached “inbox-zero”. I had no more messages left in my inbox to go through, and guess what, there wasn’t any system fault to blame for this! I genuinely reached inbox-zero. I was victorious, I was over the moon. Maybe I was over the moon quite literally as I didn’t know what day of week or what time of day it was. Clearly, the “work smart” part of the plan wasn’t in force, at any rate!

In reality, my plan went wrong on more levels than one. The meticulous folder structure that I had devised proved too rigid and too limiting and often times I had a hard time deciding what folder to file a given message under. Even worse, my “work-queue” and triage idea wasn’t really working. Triaging messages means giving messages relative importance, but with messages constantly arriving in your inbox, that importance becomes a moving target rendering my triage effort pretty useless in many cases and at times even harmful.

The break of dawn on the very next morning ripped through my peaceful “inbox-zero” state with an influx of fresh new messages that declared the start of a new inbox battle. My victory was short lived, and false. My magical and mystical “inbox-zero” turned out to be mythical.

A reality check tells us that we need tools that generate less email rather than create more email (through endless notifications). A reality check tells us that we need to give priority to sorting out our work priorities instead of focusing on achieving inbox-zero. A reality check tells us that we humans need a helping hand (the right tools, the right systems) in sorting out our work priorities because walking it alone is unrealistic and can even be counter-productive.

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